A conversation with Professor Nancy Deutsch

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Editors note: Several of the studies we’ve highlighted in the Chronicle have been conducted (or influenced) by the work of Nancy Deutsch, an Associate Professor in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. She is also affiliated with Youth-Nex, the U.Va. Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. Professor Deutsch’s research is focused on how adolescent learning and development unfolds in the context of relationships (including mentoring). She is a deep analytic thinker and we are fortunate that she is such a prolific contributor to our field. UMass Boston clinical psychology student, Laura Yoviene (LY), recently conducted an in-depth interview with Professor Deutsch (ND) that takes us beyond her c.v. and articles and introduces us to a rising star in the field of youth mentoring.

LY: Although your CV is online and the UVA site provides some info, I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit of background info (i.e. education path) and how you came to be working on mentoring research

ND: I pursued a graduate degree because I was interested in youth development, particularly girls’ development, and wanted to conduct research that would be directly relevant to programs that serve youth. I did my doctoral training at Northwestern in their Human Development and Social Policy program. My doctoral advisor, Dr. Bart Hirsch, had just received a grant to conduct an evaluation of a gender equity initiative for a regional affiliate of Boys & Girls Clubs of America. It was a great experience and set the stage for my future work. During observations at the clubs, I was intrigued by the fact that so many kids and staff talked about the clubs as homes and families, and conducted a study looking at that phenomenon. It was the relationships, and particularly youths’ relationships with staff, that youth reported as making them feel like the club was a home. To follow up on this, I conducted a long-term ethnographic study of teens at a Boys & Girls Club, the findings from which were published in my book Pride in the Projects (NYU Press, 2008). I found, among other things, that youth talked about the importance of respecting and being respected by adult staff members – a type of bi-directional respect that they did not experience with many other adults. During that time I also worked as an RA on a study of adult-youth relationships at Boys & Girls Clubs being conducted by Dr. Bart Hirsch and Dr. David DuBois, the results from which became the book After-School Centers and Youth Development (Hirsch, Deutsch & DuBois, Cambridge University Press, 2011). When I began at UVA, I connected with Dr. Winx Lawrence, a clinical psychologist who developed the Young Women Leaders Program (YWLP), a combined group and one-on-one mentoring program for adolescent girls. The program bridged my interests in after-school settings and adult-youth relationships. Since that time, I have collaborated with Dr. Lawrence, and our colleague Dr. Joanna Lee Williams, to conduct a series of studies of YWLP.  I also conducted a follow-up study of adult-youth relationships at Boys & Girls Clubs, looking in-depth at youths’ relationships with staff, the idea of bi-directional respect, and strategies that staff use to build relationships with youth. I am currently collaborating with Dr. Valerie Futch to implement a longitudinal, mixed methods study of youth-adult relationships across contexts and time, funded by the William T. Grant Foundation. This study represents a synthesis of my work to date, as it will allow me to examine natural mentoring as it occurs across settings and key transition points in adolescence.

LY: The sample used in your study came from the Young Women’s Leaders Program (YWLP), can you tell me more about the development of this program,  its goals, and your own involvement?

ND: The Young Women Leaders Program was developed by Dr. Winx Lawrence, a clinical psychologist at UVA, to help build the competencies of early adolescent girls. She founded the program in 1997 and since that time it has served more than 1,200 girls in Central Virginia as well as many more through national and international sister sites. The program is based on Self-Determination Theory, and has competence, connection, and autonomy at its core. The program uses all of the thirteen best practices that Rhodes & Dubois (2006) have suggested to be important for successful mentoring programs. YWLP pairs 7th grade girls with college women mentors who receive a year of training and support through a service learning class at their university. The program combines structured group activities with one-on-one mentoring. Mentors and mentees meet weekly with 7-9 other mentor-mentee pairs and a group facilitator(s) at the mentees’ schools. The groups follow a curriculum focused on issues facing adolescent girls (e.g., body image, self-esteem, bullying, etc.). Each week girls and mentors engage in rituals, activities and lessons including sister-time (one-on-one time within the group), high’s and low’s (reporting on good and bad things that happened during the week), group discussions, and lessons (e.g., the ABC’s of Problem Solving).  I became involved in the program in 2004 when I came to UVA. Dr. Lawrence was already conducting research on the program’s effects on both the mentors and mentees and together, and later with Dr. Williams, we wrote a series of grants to extend the program and the research on it. We conducted a mixed methods study of YWLP, funded by the United States Department of Education and the William T. Grant Foundation, which examined both program effects and how the mentoring groups serve as a setting for the girls’ development, and have an ongoing study, headed by Dr. Williams, examining program outcomes. We continue to collect data on both the mentees and the mentors, to better understand the processes and outcomes of this kind of combined program. In addition, findings are continually fed back to the program to help inform program practices.

LY: Your study examines the YWLP,  which combines one-on-one mentoring with a structured group activity component – based on your findings what format do you suggest is most effective for promoting positive youth outcomes?

ND: I don’t think it is an either-or. Our findings suggest that the group and one-on-one component may contribute to different outcomes. For example, girls report that their mentors have the most impact on their academic outcomes but that the groups (which include both mentors and peers) help them make changes in their relational and self-regulation skills. For some girls it appears that the group provides a safe base for getting to know the mentor and allows them to build trust with both a previously unknown adult and their peers.  In addition, it appears that girls who are less satisfied with their one-on-one mentoring relationships may remain in the program because they like their mentoring groups. So the combination of the group and the one-on-one components may actually compliment each other.

LY: Your current work focuses on after-school type settings and related contextual factors – what are some aspects of these contexts that may facilitate or hinder the effectiveness of positive youth development in these programs?

ND: Probably not surprising, given my focus on mentoring, I think that the staff in these settings makes a huge difference for youth. Not only do relationships with staff appear to keep kids coming to programs, but the staff become role models and natural mentors to youth. Successful staff are able to capitalize on their relationships with youth to help keep them engaged in the kinds of more structured programs that target specific positive developmental outcomes. But the relationships themselves can also be important mechanisms of change. In After-school Centers and Youth Development, my colleagues and I identify a phenomenon we call collective mentoring, whereby a group of staff members at an after-school program together take responsibility for fostering an individual youth’s development. This appears to occur naturally in some places, but we suggest that it should be a more purposeful strategy used and fostered by programs.

LY: What type of training did the mentors in the YWLP receive prior to the start of the program? Based on your findings what do you suggest as a focus for mentor training, in general?

ND: YWLP mentors receive a year of training and support. During the first half of their year of mentoring they take a college level class on issues facing adolescent girls. This class also includes best practices from the mentoring literature. The mentors also meet weekly with their group facilitator and the other mentors in their group to plan the week’s activities and discuss any issues. In the second half the mentors continue to meet weekly with the other mentors and facilitators and to check in with YWLP’s Director, Associate Director, Assistant Director, and graduate level TAs, who provide oversight and support throughout the year. I think the combination of developmental and relational training received by the mentors is important. It provides a basis for the women to understand not only what to expect from mentoring in general, but what their mentees are likely going through developmentally. Although we were all children and teenagers once, it can be difficult to remember what that was like, and developmental stages impact kids’ abilities to engage with a mentor. The combination of developmental theory and practical mentoring strategies provides a foundation from which the mentors can successfully engage with their mentees. In addition, the class and group formats provide a forum wherein mentors can learn from each other and also realize “it’s not just me” when something doesn’t go as they’d hoped!

LY: You used a mixed-method approach to examine the YWLP, what do you find to be the greatest advantages to incorporating a qualitative approach in this line of research?

ND: Qualitative research allows you to really understand the processes behind phenomenon. So while we can examine the outcomes of mentoring, adding a qualitative approach can help us better explain why mentoring does or does not work. I find the combination of interviews and observations particularly useful for studying group programs because it allows me to understand the program from the participants’ perspectives (through interviews) as well as to document the social processes that occur within the group that may be linked to outcomes (through observations).

LY: Any influential mentors in your life?

ND: Yes! Early on I was particularly influenced by two high school teachers. During and after college I was mentored by a psychiatrist whom I worked for during summers in college and again before I attended graduate school. My graduate school mentor, Bart Hirsch, helped shape the path my research took and continues to be a mentor for me. I also have a senior colleague here at UVA who has been a go-to person for support and mentorship since the beginning of my time here. The common thread that these mentors share is that all of them demonstrated a belief in me that was greater than my own belief in myself (I think I stole this phrase from somewhere but can’t think of where I heard it).